June 28, 2021

Supreme Court Decides Lombardo v. St. Louis

On June 28, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Lombardo v. St. Louis, 20-391, holding per curium that excessive force precedent requires courts to employ a “careful, context-specific analysis” on summary judgment.

In December 2015, Nicholas Gilbert was arrested for trespassing and for failing to appear in court for a traffic ticket. While in a holding cell, Gilbert apparently tried to hang himself. Responding officers struggled with Gilbert but eventually brought him to the ground and placed him in handcuffs and leg shackles. By that time, six officers were present. Gilbert was moved to the prone position, face down, while officers held down his limbs and applied pressure to his back and torso. Gilbert tried to raise his chest and said, “It hurts. Stop.” After 15 minutes of struggling in this position, Gilbert’s breathing became abnormal and he stopped moving. He was transported to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Gilbert’s parents filed suit, alleging the officers used excessive force against him. The district court granted summary judgment to the officers on qualified immunity grounds, holding the officers did not violate a constitutional right that was clearly established at the time. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed on different grounds, holding that the officers did not use unconstitutionally excessive force against Gilbert.

The Supreme Court vacated the judgment and remanded to the Eighth Circuit. The Court noted that in assessing excessive force claims, courts must ask whether the officers’ actions are objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them. Citing Graham and Kingsley, the Court recognized that its excessive force precedent requires that this inquiry includes “careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case.”

But here, the Court found it unclear whether the Eighth Circuit employed an inquiry that “clearly attends to the facts and circumstances.” The Court identified that officers placed pressure on Gilbert’s back in the prone position, despite evidence the officers were instructed that such maneuvers can cause suffocation and should get a subject off his stomach as soon as he is restrained. Yet, the Court found the Eighth Circuit was dismissive of these and other details, and may have mistakenly thought that the use of a prone restraint is per se constitutional as long as an individual appears to resist officers’ efforts to subdue him, regardless of the circumstances.

Accordingly, the Court remanded to the Eighth Circuit to employ an inquiry that sufficiently attends to the facts and circumstances of the case consistent with excessive force precedent.

The Court issued its order per curium. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, which Justices Thomas and Gorsuch joined.

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